It's mid-way through September and our Jesse Lee garden is packed with several varieties of cabbage, kale, carrots, turnips, potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, lavender, mint, peas, squash, and towering sunflowers to name just some of the horticultural projects. These were begun in the Benson Center training room starting in the dark months of January and February of this last winter and have now come to maturity and bearing fruit.
There is pride in the student's work and ownership of this garden in the voices of kids who say, "I planted that. Do you remember when...?" They would tell and retell each other the stories of the days when seed packets were eagerly sorted, the soil was carried by hand and wheel barrow into the Benson Center, how many starts, fails and restarts it took to get the hang of how much soil to use, how deep to plant the seed, how much water and how much light was needed. They talked about challenges like aphid infestations, wind storms, cold snaps, long dry spells, among others. Together they experienced what and how long it took before their cabbage and zucchini is ready to pick, wash, roast, simmer, pickle and munch in the kitchens and dining room tables of their cottages. Their home-grown tea from peppermint, lemon balm, borage and chamomile is ready to sip, just in time for fall.
People have asked if things winding down now in the garden. Not at all!
The energy from kids and staff is now directed at learning what to do with all this stuff we grew. There are many answers to that and kids are learning to dry, pickle, can, freeze, make jams, jellies, sauces, herbal salts, herbal cooking blends and teas. They're eager to present these things with pride to each other, to staff and their families. Plans are being made to bring in pots of their favorite pepper plants and fragrant herbs for the winter, scrap books with pictures, directions for propagating plants by cutting, leaf, root, and seed as well as recipes for their favorite things are being made.
Imaginations grow with the plants and the progress of the garden. When discussions of future crops and growing projects, such green house improvements, aquaponics projects involving anything from Cilantro and sugar cane to bamboo and peppers indoors is discussed, their faces light up with possibility. Kids talk about their lives after treatment and what both scares them and makes them feel hopeful. Conversations on composting and greenhouse building evolve into discussions of family and community, becoming chefs, nutritionists, biologists, farmers and bio-engineers one day.
Garden group goals include a year-round usable greenhouse, cold frames, finishing the mosaic stepping stone and soaker hose installation projects, as well as starting an online garden group business featuring a blog for youth to regularly post features in. Another idea is for an AK Child & Family Saturday market in which tables and booths can be set up on a regular date from spring to fall so that plants, produce and garden / produce related items made by kids in the program can be sold for donations. There is a lot of ambition, creative effort, and dreams both large and small being nurtured in the large fenced garden that kids past and present have created at the top of the hill and in their own small potted projects grown beneath lamp light in their rooms. They make me both proud and hopeful for their futures and the world they will walk into when they leave us.